October 10th, 2013
By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President
There is much debate over the superiority of on-line versus face-to-face qualitative research. On-line qualitative is not just the latest thing. Discussion boards and communities enable the researcher to engage the consumer in so many ways — pictures, journals, video, collages — with all this material available to the participants and the research team in one place. And, consumers can be anywhere — their home, in a store — doing anything, when they describe their experiences and reactions. But, for many, there is nothing to compare with the ability to look a consumer directly in the eye and challenge her responses or have her amplify them in the moment. In a group, everyone can quickly build on responses and create new insights. Both approaches have clear strengths.
But, why choose between the two? We have found that explorations combining both methods are highly productive. The results, in fact, are more than the sum of the parts.
Imagine a brand team that needs to revitalize a product and wants to get back to basics with a thorough exploration of the category. This is the type of task for which qualitative research has been seen as ideal. One might conduct a number of focus groups or ethnographic interviews with the relevant consumers. There would a good deal of observation and projective exercises to explore usage, attitudes, the brand landscape, unmet needs, and the like. Or, you might host an on-line community with the same consumers and cover much of the same territory with similar exercises, optimized for the on-line environment.
But, here is what happens when you combine the two approaches.
First, you conduct that on-line community with relevant consumers. In the process, they may do any number of exercises:
- Take a video of themselves shopping the category.
- Take pictures of their pantry.
- Create a video journal of the times they have used products in the category during a two-week period.
- Create a collage that represents the values they associate with the category.
- Sort all of the brands in the category into families and associate a celebrity with each family.
Second, we select the “best” participants from the on-line community — the most creative, the most verbal, the ones who related best to the other participants — and invite them to participate in a face-to-face focus group. Here, we can probe in an atmosphere of genuine give-and-take what the category, brands, and products mean to these consumers.
Aren’t we just repeating ourselves? No. This two-step approach offers a number of benefits.
- You will notice that a number of the activities done in the on-line community — journals, collages, and the like— are typical “homework” assignments we give focus group participants before a session. The on-line community becomes a study hall. The structure of the community assures us that all participants have completed their activities. How many times have you had individuals appear for a focus group with a “collage” they have obviously slapped together five minutes before leaving the house. And, we are able to nudge participants if they don’t understand aspects of the activity or if they are going in a particularly interesting direction.
- Being able to see these exercises before the group interview enables the researcher to formulate hypotheses to explore in the interview that are based on genuine insight drawn from the on-line community. Often times, the hypotheses that drive the typical focus group discussion are based on more general suppositions about a category or consumer behavior.
- It is possible to select from all of the exercises created in the on-line community just those examples that serve as the most effective stimulus in the focus group. You can select just two collages that perfectly exemplify conflicting visions of the category and present them to the group. How would they describe the differences? Do they even recognize them? You can present a video of one of the actual participants in the room as she shops the category in the grocery aisle. Was this everyone’s experience? You can draw everyone’s attention to specific details of the experience that are authentic.
- Finally, the dynamic within the group is much more productive. We already “know” the participants; we have established rapport with them during our on-line exchanges. And, they have gotten to know the others in the group. It is a bit like “old home week” when everyone enters the room for the first time.
Combining on-line and face-to-face qualitative in one project maximizes the strengths of both approaches and more than doubles the insight.
August 30th, 2013
By Bob Relihan
One of the biggest flashes of insight I had about the grocery was the realization that it could be just like the jewelry store.
I was walking through a grocery store with a woman as she shopped. We weren’t even calling this a “shop-along” yet. She put something in her cart. I remember it being a jar of mustard. I looked at her, and she knew what I was thinking. ”This is a little present for myself. No one else in the house really likes it.” She paused for a moment. ”I really like getting presents. You can’t buy a new pair of earrings every day, after all.”
Note that she hadn’t purchased some rich chocolate or an indulgent pastry. Mustard was special to her. But, the experience even transcended the mustard itself. Looking for presents made the entire trip to the grocery store much more enjoyable. Every week was a little Christmas.
It was a revelation. Up until then, I had spent a good deal of time exploring consumer needs and the power of products to fulfill those needs. To be sure, one of those needs might be the desire for a particular hedonistic experience. But, the need was still “rational,” and I was looking at how the product’s attributes delivered that experience. It was a closed system — consumer needs and product attributes, each set mapping on the other. And, it was a system marketers seemed to accept, judging by the questions we agreed were important.
In other words, we assumed that the product or service delivered the benefits. The woman in the grocery store taught me that was not the case.
- When consumers describe the benefits of a product, they are not always describing the product. They are just as likely to be reacting to some aspect of the environment that the product touches. And, that experience may be idiosyncratic to that particular consumer.
- The shopping experience can endow products with meaning independent of the products themselves. In other words, there really is such a thing as “shopper insights.”
- The woman would likely have described the mustard as “special” or “a treat.” But, these were not really attributes of the mustard. They were the product of her being the only one in the household who liked the mustard. Meaning and value are the result of context; rarely are they intrinsic.
The ultimate lesson is that a product does not exist in a vacuum. Its value and meaning to a consumer cannot be separated from the desire to have it or the act of shopping for it.
July 29th, 2013
By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President
We often encourage consumers to think “metaphorically.” In a focus group or interview, metaphors can be powerful. Those who use them open up. They move in new and unexpected directions. Ultimately, the metaphors put us in touch with the unconscious motivations and beliefs of the consumers who create them.
But, the process doesn’t always work. You ask consumers to discuss a particular product, and they say it is “like a golden retriever.” We have all heard the “golden retriever.” The brand makes them feel good, and a golden retriever makes them feel good. This is stale, predictable. We are tempted to say that we have just gotten into a rut of convention. Ask people to name a dog, and most give the golden retriever.
From the perspective of interviewing technique, the problem is deeper and more basic. We have confused metaphor with simile. Not to be over pedantic, but let me define. Both are figures of speech; both are analogies. But, a simile uses like or as in the analogy. In a metaphor, the comparison is implicit.
The difference between an implicit and an explicit analogy is key in dealing with a respondent. When individuals make a conscious, literal comparison, there is no room for serendipity. You can see the wheels turning.
“Let’s see. Brand A makes me feel good. OK. What else makes me feel good? Golden retrievers make me feel good. So, Brand A is like a golden retriever.”
She has added nothing, and you have learned nothing. She might as well have told you directly that Brand A made her feel good. When consumers switch to “simile mode” they make a simple literal translation. There is no expansion; nothing is in touch with their motivations.
So, how can we encourage more genuine metaphorical thinking?
- Use creative, projective exercises. Have your consumers draw pictures or cartoons. Create a category family. Write a brand obituary. Describe how a brand smells (even if the product has no smell). Do anything that confuses the terms of the explicit analogy the consumer might want to create between her emotions and that brand or product in which you are interested. You can do this by always shifting among senses. If you are interested in the taste of a product, talk about its color. If you want to understand the impact of a product’s color, discuss its aroma.
- Focus on the metaphor’s vehicle. Traditional rhetorical theory distinguishes between the “tenor” and the “vehicle” of a metaphor. The tenor is the object or concept in which you are interested. The vehicle is what is compared to it. For example, in the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a life in error is the tenor described by analogy to a dark forest, the vehicle. If you have the consumer focus solely on the vehicle–the golden retriever in our initial example of a simile–and discuss only the vehicle–what it means, how it looks, how it feels–you will break the conscious connection the consumers might want to make between the tenor and the vehicle. In discussing just the vehicle, she will reveal her subconscious associations with the tenor.
- Tell stories and discuss the images. If you have consumers tell stories about a brand, you will also break down the obvious, explicit connections. For example, I used to ask car owners about the most memorable event they remembered in their cars. And, I would ask them to tell the stories of that event. One woman described driving to the hotel after her first daughter’s wedding. A young man described bringing his new car to show his father. In their descriptions of these events were images that ultimately reflected their sense of the significance of the makes of cars they drove.
- Never frame your question like a simile. This is the basic rule. Never ask what a brand or product is “like.”
If you follow these principles, your metaphoric discussions with consumers will be much more expansive and productive. I will save the value of allegory for a later post.
July 19th, 2013
By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President
Every so often, one runs into a marvelous confluence of avocation and vocation. I love cars. So, I was reading the blog at Car and Driver and discovered a long discussion of the stagnation of the Honda brand. Cars AND marketing. I couldn’t resist. Toward the end of the piece, Dave Marble described an example of how Honda got in the position of creating underwhelming products.
“The [Honda planning] department concocts customer abstracts so interchangeable business drones can comprehend the intent of a new vehicle. In the case of the first-generation RDX, this abstract was “Jason,” a young, upwardly mobile, urban-residing male that needed a turbocharged engine, “Super Handling All-Wheel Drive,” and room to transport all his lifestyle accouterments. Yeah, okay. As it turned out, there weren’t many “Jasons” buying the RDX. Planning got that part wrong—really wrong.”
I was sympathetic. It reminded me so much of the experience shared by many qualitative researchers of being asked to assemble a focus group composed of members of a specific customer segment (usually the product of a very sophisticated segmentation analysis) only to discover that the particular combination of demographics, psychographics, and behavior apparently does not exist in the real world.
But, I also know that user archetypes can be incredibly valuable. I have helped develop some. They focus the minds of marketers and new product developers. You may not be able to have an actual customer with you 24/7, but you can have the user archetype of your product taped above your desk.
So, here are four guidelines for creating user archetypes that work.
- Make sure that “real users” drive the process. Accurate user archetypes are based on close observation of real users — their needs, their wants, their behavior. This may seem self-evident, but I suspect that the “Jason” had his genesis not in the lives of real car buyers but out of the need or desire on the part of Honda to assure that the RDX was true to their vision of the Acura nameplate and that the RDX was clearly distinguished from the similar Honda CR-V. To convince themselves that a member of their vehicle portfolio was distinct, they created a “vision” of its buyer that was also distinct, and self-fulfilling. And, evidently, inaccurate.
- Recognize the difference between real and aspirational users. For marketers, their products have two kinds of users — the real flesh and blood user and the person the real user aspires to be by using the product. Understanding both users is crucial to marketers, but confusing them can cause problems. For example, the media behaviors of real and aspirational users can be different. Building a media plan on the tastes of the aspirational user may not reach the real target. Again, Honda may have erred in this direction. Jason seems much more like someone to whom an RDX user might aspire.
- Recognize the difference between a user personality and a brand personality. The marketers or new product developers often have two touchstones to guide their efforts — the brand personality and the user personality. I have known brand managers with two different types of consumer-created collages in their offices. One collected images of users and what the stood for; the other revealed images of the brand’s personality. There can be overlap between the two, but there is rarely identity. A car, such as a compact SUV like the RDX, might well have the personality of a magician which enables the user to have the personality of a superhero.
- Be “real” yourself. Do not overly idealize your user. He may have flaws, but these flaws may be essential to how he or she relates to your product.
Ultimately, take your user archetype out for a test drive. Once you have created the archetype, see if you can actually find real representatives. Talk to them; listen to them. Does the archetype resonate with them? Remember, the archetype is a construct to guide your actions, so they are unlikely to play it back literally and verbatim. But, if the archetype is well constructed, it should reflect their needs, desires, hopes, and fears.
May 23rd, 2013
By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President
The title is meant to be a bit clever. I am not talking about actual focus groups; I am referring to the term. I have always suspected that focus group was used to refer to any casual, open-ended, small sample, non-projectable research method. And, I always thought that those who used the term this way were misinformed. Well, I have to throw in the towel. I have no better authority than the Pew Research Center.
Its recent project exploring teens, their use of social media, and their attitudes to on-line privacy has generated a good deal of buzz in the press. It merits an extended discussion in the future. But, what caught my eye was the research method. There was a phone survey, twenty-four focus groups conducted in four markets, and “two online focus groups…conducted as an asynchronous threaded discussion over three days using an online platform, and the participants were asked to log in twice per day.”
This is what we at C+R Research call a short-term online community. To be sure, we conduct focus groups. We may even conduct focus groups online. But, we are careful to distinguish between the two methods — focus groups and communities. We believe each has its strengths that make each appropriate to particular situations and sets of issues.
- Focus Groups are great when consumers need to be pressed on their reactions by the give-and-take of face-to-face interaction. This is true when it is important to assess how emotionally committed they are in their reactions to something such as a new product concept.
- Online communities make it easier for consumers to describe their behavior and feelings at length, often in a nurturing, unthreatening environment. So, when it is important to explore the behavior of consumers and their emotional involvement in that behavior, online communities are just the ticket. When I want to know the needs that drive category usage and explore the gaps, an online community is a good place to start.
That is why experience is so important. When the marketing manager says, “We need to do focus groups,” he/she probably means we need to collect information in a way that isn’t a survey. It is the experienced qualitative researcher, familiar with a range of methods and categories, who can determine whether those “focus groups” should be online communities, individual interviews, ethnographies, in-store observations, or, yes, focus groups.
May 15th, 2013
By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President
There is a good deal of received wisdom about the grocery store design and how it can both engage the consumer and structure her progress through the store. The strategy of placing the more engaging areas, such as the deli and meat, around the perimeter of the store and the packaged items in the center of the store is well known. End-caps capture attention as well as the shelves at eye level.
All of these strategies create the impression that the store is well-organized and the trip through it regular and structured. I must say that my experience shadowing and interviewing consumers through the store seems to confirm this. A series of shopping trips through the same store often seems similar as the shoppers follow close to the same route through the store, examining many of the same items.
But, my most recent trip to the grocery store has caused me to re-think this order. I walked through the first set of doors and grabbed my cart. I went through the second set of doors and turned right into the produce department. How typical. But, as often happens in the grocery, I bumped another shopper. I looked at her and then glanced around at the others in the produce department. There were about five of us. Now, fast forward. I am in the checkout line. As I am placing things on the conveyor, I drop a can on the floor. Again, the break in the typical action causes me to look around. There are two people behind me and two more in the aisle next to me. None of them were among the group with whom I began my journey through the store forty minutes earlier. We all might have made it to the deli together, but with each twist and turn we went our separate ways.
Progress through the grocery store is not as regular as we might think, or hope. Each shopper is a bit like a molecule bouncing about in space. As time passes, it becomes increasingly impossible to know where each molecule is, where it came from and where it is going. Getting the attention of a substantial number of shoppers in the store, therefore, is a difficult task. For each one of them the context is constantly changing, and context structures the meaning of any communication.
So, what should one do to get a consistent message to the most shoppers in the grocery store?
- Get shoppers before they are in the store. This, of course, is the classic strategy of the weekly flyer. But, now it is necessary to get some shoppers on the their mobile devices too.
- Get them at the entrance. If shoppers are going to scatter in unpredictable ways throughout the store, displays near the door will have impact on the greatest number of shoppers.
- Be as disruptive as possible. Encamps have some impact, but a pallet of a product in the middle of the aisle has to be noticed.
- Have messages in as many places as possible. The package on the shelf may have the best expression of you message, but it is in only one place in the store. Products in multiple places will have more impact. Advertising in the store also extends the react of the product’s message.
- Provide a more interactive store experience. The store is not the constant. It is the shopper who is the constant. If the shopper can be reached in the store wherever she is through a combination of WiFi and Interior GPS, the experience can be controlled for all shoppers. It won’t matter if they are standing in front of a particular display, the product’s message can reach her in any related part of the store. Or, as she passes your product, she can be alerted it’s there–more disruptive behavior.
The analogue experience of walking through a grocery store is unpredictable and difficult to control. Technology, however, can make the shopper the focus of the shopping experience, assuring that each shopper receives the same message or a message tailored to her particular wants and needs.
On May 3rd, the QRCA Southeast Chapter meeting held in Atlanta will feature Shaili Bhatt, a Research Director here at C+R Research and a member of QRCA’s Board of Directors. Shaili will be presenting, “Unleashing the Power of Advanced Online Qualitative Approaches.”
For much of the recent past, the paradigm for improving online qualitative research has focused on the fundamentals of project set-up, platform technologies, and the addition of online moderating skill-sets. We are missing the real story: how are researchers using these tools and what are the results? How can we empower researchers with more advanced approaches?
This presentation will feature a high-level overview across a gallery of case studies for cutting-edge and creative online qualitative designs. Attendees will learn how today’s qualitative practitioners are hearing the “consumer story” in an online environment and translating their findings into awe-inspiring reporting results.
March 19th, 2013
By Jorge Martinez, Director, LatinoEyes
When C+R first began conducting Hispanic research, one of the difficulties was finding participants. The methods we were using within the general population were not effective. We would turn to dedicated recruiters who were wired in to the local Hispanic communities to find focus group participants. At times, they would shepherd the participants to the facility as a group in a van. It was complicated and dicey.
We have been slowly been moving away from such unusual tactics. And, it is with a good deal of excitement that we read the latest report from the Pew Research’s Hispanic Center indicating that the Hispanic population in the US is closing the “digital divide.” Hispanics’ use of the internet (78%) ids equal to that of the African American community and now approaches the level (87%) of the white population. Their use of the internet (86%) is almost equal to that of non-Hispanic whites (90%) and edges above African-Americans (84%).
What is most interesting about Hispanics as they cross the digital divide is that they are in the vanguard of the transition to mobile. A higher proportion of them (76%) access the internet with a cellphone or other handheld device than whites (60%), and even slightly more than African-Americans (73%). And for a variety of reasons, they are more likely to live in cellphone only households (47%) than either African Americans (38%) or non-Hispanic whites (30%).
So, it is clear that efforts to understand the tastes, preferences, and attitudes of today’s Hispanics can take place in the digital space and, increasingly, in the mobile leading edge of that world. But, doing so will still require keeping in mind some of the basic principles we have observed exploring the Hispanics community with more conventional means.
- Hispanic participants still need to be given language options when they participate in a survey or an online community. It is important to remember that fluency in either language does not define Hispanic identity, and that research with Hispanics does not mean that research must be done exclusively in Spanish. Self-perceptions of language ability do not always match actual competency. Some desire to use Spanish even beyond the limits of their actual competency. It may even make sense in a qualitative environment to allow participants to move back and forth between English and Spanish guided by moderators who are equally fluid.
- We still need to be attentive and accommodate contextual and cultural differences within the Latino community. Even though Spanish may be the common language the range of linguistic and cultural variation is considerable and can present even more of a problem in a communications medium that feels as casual as “mobile.”
- Our experience conducting qualitative research suggests how important relationships and the social dynamic are within the Hispanic community. When interacting with Latinos in a digital environment, we need to provide space for this interpersonal dynamic if we are going to generate meaningful insights.
Online methods may not be appropriate for all research into the Hispanic community. More traditional, face-to-face approaches are still required for reaching older, unacculturated Hispanics. Yet, we are now in an era when digital approaches can be as successful with Hispanic respondents and with any other group.
March 8th, 2013
By Bob Relihan
Last year I discussed why it may be wise to employ qualitative methods after a quantitative investigation. This approach, of course, reverses the traditional order of such things. Many of us were taught to use in-depth interviews or focus groups to generate hypotheses for quantitative testing. But, as product development cycles get shortened it is tempting to short-circuit the initial qualitative phase of a research program and move straight to quantification. Marketers, after all, know their category and their consumers. Right?
Here are 3 reasons why early qualitative research will make the design and analysis of quantitative projects smoother and more precise.
- Consumers really do define words in unexpected ways. I recently completed a series of individual interviews of customers who purchased a particular product. This product was available as either a “custom” item or “off-the-shelf.” I recruited customers of each product type for my interviews. To my surprise, many of those I thought would be “custom” buyers turned out to purchase non-custom products. What happened? It turned out that there were so many varieties of off-the-shelf products, customers often printed the names of the items they purchased. The product was just what they needed. It was “custom.” If I had used my screener to fill quotas of “custom” and “off-the-shelf” users for a large scale survey of product attitudes and usage, my results would have been incomprehensible or, worse yet, clear but wrong.
- Consumers really do view categories differently. I was exploring product usage in a category that the brand managers divided into four groups —premium brands, value brands, bargain brands, and low-price brands. Each of these categories represented a different price point and value proposition. Consumers just didn’t see the category that way. Any product in the category was either a “name brand” or a “generic” —each of which had very different price expectations. If we looked at the results of a brand image survey based upon the four slices of the category marketers saw, we would probably have confused results that would be more clear viewed through the two-segment lens consumers used.
- Consumers really classify products in unusual ways. From the perspective of brand managers, a category is often defined by attributes of production and distribution that may be irrelevant to consumers. Designing a quantitative study based on these assumptions can be misleading. For example, “salty snacks” is a category that makes sense to marketers because it corresponds to how products are distributed and displayed in stores. It makes some sense to consumers, but it is not perfect. When I have explored salty snack qualitatively with consumers, I always make sure that we consider candy, cookies, frozen single-serve pizzas, apples — anything that can is consumed at a non-meal occasion. The brand manager may say these aren’t in my category. But what happens in the interview? We often discover that some salty snacks —pretzels, for example — have as much in common with chocolates as they do with other salty snacks. And, these associations reveal a range of relevant attributes we would not have seen if we had limited our exploration to just “salty snacks.”
So, if you want to have maximum confidence in you quantitative instrument and in the results it produces, a qualitative first step is invaluable. You really do need to “measure twice and cut once.” Moreover, it is much more efficient if your qualitative consultant actually works with your quantitative consultant, discussing the issues in depth rather than simply passing on a report of qualitative findings.
March 1st, 2013
By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President
The holiday season has become a benchmark for the forward progress of online and mobile shopping activity. Pew has reported that 58% of cellphone owners used their phones in a store to get information to guide their shopping.
- 46% of cellphone owners used their phones to call a friend or family member for advice.
- 28% of cellphone owners used their phones to look up product reviews.
- 27% of cellphone owners used their phones to look up the price of a product.
Of course, younger smartphone owners were much more likely to engage in these behaviors.
These are remarkable numbers, but what has more an interesting implication for those interested in the future of mobile research and online communities are the demographics that did not make the headlines. To be sure, men and women check reviews and prices with their phones at roughly similar rates. But, to seek advice…. Hardly!
Is this another example of men not asking for directions? Partially, I suppose. but it is a bit more complex than that. If you listen to phone conversations in stores (I confess to being a compulsive eavesdropper), you will hear two very different exchanges. Painting with a very broad brush, women seen to call from the grocery store and ask family members what they want. “Do you want Rocky Road or Chocolate Mint Chip?” “What would you like for lunch?” Men, on the other hand, tend to ask about the “List.” “I can’t find Dole; is it OK to get Del Monte?” “You said steak, but what kind?”
In other words, women seem to check with home because they want to get it right; they want to make sure everyone is happy. Men seem to check because they don’t want to get it wrong. Or, they don’t worry and don’t call.
So, from the perspective of research, this is mixed news. Mobile data collection seems to be the way to go. People are “transmitting data” already. The same can’t be said for taking surveys; they exist almost exclusively in the context of research. But, if we want to integrate that mobile activity into an online community, many women may be there already. Men, on the other hand, may not be.